In 2021, South African cities can turn crisis into opportunity for a just low carbon transition. Here’s how.


In 2000, when Sustainable Energy Africa (SEA) was founded, the role of cities in sustainable energy transitions and the scale of urban energy consumption were unknown. Twenty years later cities are recognised as crucial for transforming energy demand and emissions. We have tracked energy use in South African cities, as well as trends in energy efficiency, renewable energy uptake and the governance of this transition for over a decade, in the State of Energy in South African Cities reports. In 2021, we see cause for optimism.

SEA launched the 4th edition of the State of Energy in South African Cities in November 2020. It features 20 of South Africa’s most energy intensive cities and towns, provides insight into the sustainable urban energy transition to date and offers solutions to how our cities can transition to a low carbon economy. The report came at a momentous time, during South Africa’s battle with COVID-19. That battle is ongoing, but if economic recovery is accompanied by a commitment to sustainability at SEA we believe that opportunity can emerge out of this crisis. The report provides a basis for policy-makers and planners to develop the sustainable economic recovery plans our cities need.

The cities examined in the report include metros, secondary cities and key industrial and smaller towns, which account for close to 40% of South Africa’s total energy consumption, over half of national electricity demand and 29% of all national emissions. The report charts how cities are driving large-scale energy efficiency programmes, deploying renewable energy and contributing to national climate change mitigation targets. South African cities are showing signs of decoupling of growth in electricity use from economic growth (i.e. less energy is used to produce a unit of economic output) - a significant accomplishment in the electricity sector. Energy consumption and carbon emissions are increasing in absolute terms, but decreasing per capita and per gross value add (GVA) at the same rate.

The progress achieved so far is the tip of the iceberg of what’s possible; cities have significant opportunities to implement solutions towards a low carbon future. The three biggest opportunity areas are:

Develop sustainable, affordable and effective public transport systems in conjunction with transit-oriented development

The transport sector dominates energy demand in South African cities. Fossil fuel powered vehicles account for more than half the energy consumed in cities, particularly road transport. This is as a consequence of the sprawling character of South African cities, which require travel over large distances to places of economic activity and amenities. In the last decade, the transport sector was the fastest growing source of emissions due to the increased use of private vehicles. COVID-19 has reduced the amount of fuel used for transport, but as we move forward reducing energy demand will hinge on transforming the transport sector. Sustainable, affordable and effective public transport systems in conjunction with transit-oriented development will enable people to shift to safe and reliable public transport regardless of their income. Non-modal transport initiatives such as the development of bicycle lanes and work-from-home flexibility also offer significant opportunities to reduce transport-related energy during and following the pandemic.

Focus on building energy efficiency and use of electricity, especially for new buildings

The built environment accounts for the largest share of emissions in South African cities because our buildings use coal-based electricity, which has a higher emissions intensity than other fuels including petroleum. Recognising this, an intensive effort is underway by cities to transition to affordable sustainable energy use. Emphasis on efficient electricity use should be prioritised, starting at the town and building design stage. The work of four metropolitan municipalities supported by SEA and C40 through the South African Buildings Programme is one such example - Tshwane, Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban are aiming to introduce net zero carbon building bylaws for new buildings by 2030 and for existing buildings by 2050, which will radically decrease the electricity demand by these cities, and in turn, the country. The construction of healthier and energy-efficient buildings offers good opportunities for job creation and economic recovery in a post-Covid 19 world. The anticipated revision of the National Building Regulations will be critical in supporting this. You can hear more about these issues in this five-part podcast series.

Expand energy efficiency and renewable energy interventions

In the electricity sector, we are already seeing small but rapidly accelerating positive shifts. The above-inflation increases in electricity tariffs combined with load-shedding and solar PV grid parity has resulted in rapid uptake of energy efficiency and renewable energy. In response to decreased revenue from electricity sales, cities are exploring different business models and addressing energy poverty, and also reducing their own energy demand by implementing energy efficiency and renewable energy interventions such as waste to energy projects and solar PV. These interventions help cities and their constituents build resilience to future economic shocks. A Renewable Energy Roadmap for African Cities, released late in 2020, can help city governments to do this. The Urban Energy Support website is also a useful resource.

The 2020 report highlights, in more detail, ten ways in which cities can transition to a low carbon economy. Cities need to adopt a radical approach that is incremental, but not reckless, which calls for a different style of urban management and governance. It means promoting inclusive participation, sharing knowledge and engaging citizens - only through partnerships with their citizens will cities be able to improve their governance and advance sustainable energy development.

The report calls on all of society to re-imagine a more sustainable and just South African energy system. Moreover, the green economy is being seen as a key lever for stimulating post-pandemic economic recovery, and cities are well placed to support this. We need to urgently scale-up energy efficiency and renewable energy interventions at the local level, and empower cities and our citizenry. The energy transformation, if done in a just manner, can help to deliver a sustainable economic recovery that addresses the country’s triple challenges of reducing unemployment, poverty and inequality, while protecting the most vulnerable against further economic, health and climate shocks.


This blog post was written by the team at Sustainable Energy Africa. The original version of this article appeared on the C40 Knowledge Hub and was adopted with minor changes.

The State of Energy in South African Cities report was produced by SEA in the framework of the V-LED project. The V-LED project is part of the International Climate Initiative, supported by the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU).